The Water Dancer is set in Virginia during the time of slavery. In this slightly-different version of the antebellum South, the enslaved are referred to as the Tasked, while their white masters are known as the Quality. The protagonist, Hiram, is an enslaved black man who was born and raised on a huge estate called Lockless, in Elm County. Hiram’s mother, Rose, was enslaved, while his father, Howell Walker, is the white master of Lockless. Howell’s white son, Maynard, is his heir. He is also Hiram’s brother and master.
The novel opens on a bridge over the river Goose. Hiram—called Hi for short—is driving a horse and carriage carrying Maynard and a ‘fancy,’ or prostitute, who Maynard hired. On the bridge, Hiram sees a vision of his mother water dancing, a type of dance in which a jug of water is balanced on the head. She was said to be the best dancer at Lockless. Even though Hiram has the incredible gift of a photographic memory, he is unable to remember his mother. When he was nine years old she was sold and taken over this same bridge to an unknown fate.
Suddenly, Hiram’s vision fades into a surreal moment in which “the road beneath the wheels disappeared and the whole of the bridge fell away.” He feels himself floating in a blue light, then suddenly he and Maynard are both drowning in the cold water. Maynard calls out to Hiram to save him. But Hiram feels sure they will both die. He has a vision of his mother handing him a shell necklace when he was a boy, then walking off into the distance. Now the same boy turns to him to offer him the necklace.
Hiram recalls that he experienced a magical moment like this once before, when his mother departed. The narrative shifts back in time to the immediate aftermath of his loss of his mother. The first morning his mother is gone he wakes up with hardly any memory of what had happened. He recalls only screams, pleading, the smell of horses and a long trough of water. He desperately runs to the stable, feeling certain that some answer or path to his mother awaits him there. At the trough of water, he has a similar experience to the one with which the narrative begins: a blue mist rises over the water and he feels a light pulling him. Then he sees the stable fade away and he comes back to consciousness on the floor.
After his mother is gone Hiram goes to live with Thena, a bitter and isolated woman. Hiram feels that only she will understand the rage and suffering that he feels. By the time he is eleven, Hi learns the source of her rage. Her beloved husband, John, was once the respected boss of the prosperous tobacco fields at Lockless. But after he died of fever the land, stripped of its nutrients, began to fail, and Howell sold all five of Thena’s children. Thena tells Hiram that while she can’t be his mother she accepts that he has chosen her.
One day, Hiram theatrically recites a work song and imitates his elders in front of his father, hoping to impress him. Howell Walker smiles and tosses him a copper coin. The next day, Boss Harlan, the boss of the fields, and Desi, his wife, tell Hi and Thena that they are to move up to the estate of Lockless to live there. Hi is excited and feels a grand future awaits him. But Thena warns that the Walkers are not his true family. Moreover, while they’ll be relieved of the hard physical labor of the fields their experience will be more brutal because they will be right under the eye of their masters. Roscoe, Howell’s butler, takes Thena and Hi to live in the Warrens—tunnels for the Tasked beneath the house. Hi is simply told to make himself useful, which he does, assuming many tasks around the house.
One day Howell Walker calls a dinner party at Lockless. The guests begin to get drunk and a white aristocrat named Alice Caulley demands a song. When no one responds she slaps one of the Tasked. To calm the situation, Howell looks to Hiram, who understands that he must perform one of his memory tricks to distract and entertain the guests.
Hi finds a deck of cards with letters of the alphabet that correspond with rhymes. He asks Alice to shuffle the deck, then he inspects the cards and she places them face down in a random order. As Alice reveals each card to the guests Hiram repeats the rhymes without missing a beat. The guests are pleased. When Alice asks what else he can do, Hiram has the guests stand in a long line. He asks them each a personal question, then repeats their answers back to them with drama and embellishment. The guests applaud, the tension eases and the party ends.
After this episode, Howell calls Hiram in to meet with Mr. Fields, Maynard’s tutor. Mr. Fields conducts tests to confirm that Hi has a photographic memory. On Howell Walker’s recommendation, Hi begins to take lessons with Mr. Fields. Hi puts great effort into his studies. He advances rapidly and takes pride in being a far better student than Maynard. But after a year the true intention of his studies is revealed: he is to become the manservant for the incompetent Maynard, the future heir of Lockless.
Hiram is nineteen. The day before the races and the episode at the river Goose, Hiram ponders the difficult future of Lockless, with its used-up land and Maynard’s incompetence. Maynard says he will bet a lot of money on his horse, Diamond, with the aim of proving his worth to his peers who look down on him. Later, when Hi is alone with his father, Howell tells him there is a lot of trouble coming for the estate and that he must watch over Maynard. That night Hi dreams that the Tasked of Lockless have aged and they are all linked to a long chain held by Maynard, who is a baby. He feels shaken and disturbed when he wakes up.
The following morning, after running into his love interest, Sophia, Hiram takes Maynard to race-day in the new Millenium chaise. He watches as Maynard is humiliated: in front of Adeline Jones, a polite woman he once tried to woo, and in front of Corrinne Quinn, his future wife, who is elevated to a higher standing than Maynard because she sits in the area demarcated for the ladies of Virginia. Maynard longs to be in the jockey club with the other aristocrats, but they have kicked him out. Maynard’s horse, Diamond, wins the race and he instructs Hiram to drive him through town, hoping he will finally be respected by the other men of the Quality. When this doesn’t work out he tells Hiram to drop him at the pleasure house and pick him up in an hour.
Uneasy due to the increasingly tense atmosphere as the whites become more drunk and hostile, Hiram decides to visit Georgie Parks, a man highly esteemed by both the “coloreds” and the whites of Elm County. Georgie lives in Freetown, the free Black section of Starfall. Georgie shares memories of Hiram’s mother Rose and Aunt Emma. Then Hiram tells Georgie that he feels he must escape. He says he has heard that Georgie is “connected to people who operate in such things.” Georgie tries to dissuade him but Hiram is persistent. Hi believes that Georgie didn’t deny his underground connections and that he will eventually help him.
Hiram goes to pick up a very drunk Maynard and the prostitute he has hired. There he sees Hawkins, Corrine Quinn’s servant, who promises not to tell Corrine about the prostitute. Maynard feels a moment of shame and asks Hiram to take the back way out of town, which leads them to the bridge. As they approach the bridge Hi sees a strange blue mist coming up off the water, then suddenly the sound of the horses’ hooves fades. The fog parts and Hi sees his mother water dancing on the bridge. He tries to pull the reins to slow the horse but it is too late.
In the opening sections of The Water Dancer the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, provides historical context that helps to establish the setting of the novel in the antebellum American South, where rich white plantation owners held enslaved black people as their property. Elm County is a fictional place, but the decline of the tobacco crop and the wealth of the early settlers was a real historical phenomenon. As the land became poor through overuse, a new generation of entrepreneurs, aided by recent technological developments, began to exploit richer lands further South and West.
In this context, the estate of Lockless has fallen on hard times. Many of its workshops are no longer in use and many of the enslaved people, who are known in the universe of The Water Dancer as “the Tasked,” are sold off. They are separated from their families and sent down “Natchez-way.” Natchez is a reference to the real city on the Mississippi River that was an important center of trade in the nineteenth century. Many enslaved people were forcibly brought there to work on new plantations of cotton and sugarcane. More broadly, in The Water Dancer Natchez is a symbol for the uncertain and crueler future awaiting enslaved people who are separated from their loved ones and sent to new masters further south and west.
Howell and Maynard Walker are allegories for this economic and social shift in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. Howell has all the appearances of a gentleman of “the Quality,” the terms Coates uses to describe the white, slave-owning class. However, “he was the last of a particular species,” since the first settlers of the East have lost their power. That Maynard is stupid and without charm only further highlights that this class has no future.
Hiram, on the other hand, is gifted, especially when it comes to his exceptional memory. Ironically, while he is able to memorize long and intricate series of details and stories, Hiram cannot clearly remember his mother nor the day they were separated: he has “pushed my memory of her into the ‘down there’ of my mind.” Only fog and smoke are left where Hiram’s mother once was, metaphors that Coates uses to emphasize his inability to remember.
Yet suddenly, on a bridge over the river Goose, Hiram sees a vivid vision of his mother water dancing. The bridge symbolizes the bridge “between the land of the living and the land of the lost.” This is because the Tasked must cross over this bridge when they are sold to new masters and sent “Natchez-way.” As Hiram approaches the bridge he is struck by the memory of his many loved ones, including his mother, who was forced to cross the bridge and whom he never saw again. In this way, Hiram’s mother embodies the “legions of the lost” who disappeared over the river Goose.
The bridge over the river Goose also symbolizes the bridge between “the ends of our knowledge and how much more lies beyond it,” meaning between objective reality and another, more magical world, one filled with lost memories and greater possibilities. In the opening scene of The Water Dancer, Hiram is able to cross this boundary by means of a special power called Conduction. While Hi still understands little about Conduction, he knows it is deeply connected to “the awesome power of memory,” a theme of central importance in the novel.
Memory is capable of opening “a blue door from one world to another” as well as moving people between two different places. The Water Dancer is a novel of magical realism, a style of fiction that paints a realistic view of the world while also adding magical elements. While the narrative is largely realistic and even historically accurate, the protagonist, Hiram, possesses a magical power called Conduction. When Hiram experiences Conduction he is surrounded by blue mist. And when he is certain he will die, a blue light envelops him. In this light he feels peace and freedom, and knows that there really is “a home-place of our own, a life beyond the Task.” In this way, for Hiram the color blue symbolizes the power of Conduction, which itself evokes the possibility of life beyond slavery.
Meanwhile, life under slavery is marked by harsh divisions between the Tasked (Black enslaved people), the Quality (white aristocracy), and the Low (impoverished white people). Coates draws out these class and race divisions through the theme of appearances. The Quality make up the most powerful class. Yet their power is based solely on appearances, since the labor of enslaved people is the true engine of Lockless and of all of American society. Hiram reflects that the Quality have “built an entire apparatus to disguise this weakness.” Their underground tunnels, secret entrances and hidden levers make it appear as if their society is “powered by some imperceptible energy.”
The Quality appear to be refined and dignified. However, at his father’s dinner party at Lockless Hiram confirms that once the white aristocrats are bored and drunk, they are “barbarian” and “there is no limit to their cruelty,” which they take out on the Tasked. Even so, Hiram and the Tasked fear the low whites even more than they fear the Quality. This is because in a deeply hierarchical world, the Low whites cling to the only power they have, which is the power to do violence to enslaved people. In contrast, Hi reflects that among “the coloreds” there is no Quality or Low.
As a young person, Hi is caught between these worlds. On the one hand, he looks up to his father, the master of Lockless, who represents the possibility of a grand, free life. His father tells him stories of their great family heritage and encourages him to take lessons with Mr. Fields. Hi thus feels he is entitled to be part of the Quality and imagines himself to be the rightful heir of Lockless. But Thena reminds Hi that his father sold his mother into slavery and warns him that “they ain’t your family.” As Hi moves to the estate and becomes more intimate with how much the Quality really take from the Tasked, he must deal with his increasingly contradictory feelings: “I envied them. I was horrified by them,” he says.
Hi must also come to terms with his undignified position of being enslaved to his incompetent brother, Maynard. Coates emphasizes this condition through the motif of chains and the imagery of someone helpless who is bound to someone cruel and careless. The day before the fateful race-day, as Hiram reflects on the way his fate and the fate of all those he loves on the Street depend on the incompetent Maynard, he looks at an engraving of a Cupid chained to a laughing Aphrodite. That night he dreams that he and all of the Tasked at Lockless are linked to one long chain held by Maynard. They are all old and Maynard is a baby, unaware that their fate depends on him.